by MIA FREEDMAN
Once upon a time, I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. And I didn’t even realise it. It was before the term even existed; back when our understanding of domestic abuse meant bruises or broken bones.
All I knew was that I felt desperately unhappy, horribly insecure, and painfully isolated. My self esteem was somewhere south of the gutter. I cried a lot. And yet I thought I was in love. But what a twisted, toxic, destructive love it was.
Eventually I found the strength to walk away and with every step my confidence increased and the mysterious hold he’d had over me became harder to fathom. How had I let myself sink to that point? Why did I let someone treat me so badly? On paper, I had the power in the relationship. I was financially independent, had a strong support network, a great job. I considered myself intelligent, street smart, confident. Yet still I stayed with a total jerk, tethered to him by chains that existed only in my mind.
There was no law that could have protected me from that relationship. The line between shitty behaviour and criminal behaviour was never crossed or even defined. I had to get to the point where I realised that I had the power to walk away [update: for those asking, I wrote extensively about my emotionally abusive relationship with 'Charlie' in my book: Mamamia, a memoir of magazines, mistakes and motherhood - which you can buy online here. or download as an ebook here]
And so it is with trolls.
Everyone has their own definition of ‘troll’ and in truth there’s a broad spectrum of troll behaviour from the relatively harmless stirrers to the most vicious bile-spewing abusers.
The internet is simply a microcosm of life: most people are polite, many are awesome and a tiny minority are ratbags. The difference is that in real life, you can gravitate towards the awesome people and choose to avoid the ratbags. On social media however, the ratbags gravitate to you, particularly when you have a public profile. And unwittingly, you carry them around in your pocket and bring them into your home inside your computer. Trolls are heady with this power, intoxicated by the idea they can capture the attention – however briefly and negatively - of someone they could never hope to meet.
The higher your profile, the more of them jostle for your attention. Because that’s what they want. That’s ALL they want.
I’m not suggesting Channel 7 hold a telethon for people in the public eye who have to read offensive comments on Twitter. No need to send flowers or donate at your nearest bank. But the environment, tone and boundaries we establish on social media as a society have implications for everyone. How do we deal with this and what are we prepared to accept?
I nearly didn’t write this column after reading the thoughts of author and blogger Sam de Brito this week because I didn’t want to come across like a precious whinger. In a column called “Media darlings need a new sense of perspective”, he argued that people in the public eye like football player Robbie Farah and Charlotte Dawson who complain about trolls need to harden up. “We counsel crying children with ‘names can never hurt you’, yet grown-ups….confuse the same silly names for weapons, online insults for violence and Twitter mockery for attempted murder.” In short: suck it up Princesses. He’s right in some ways. As much as I loathe trolls and sympathise with anyone who has to deal with them, I was surprised when Farrah called a press conference to complain about some offensive tweets and more surprised when NSW premier Barry O’Farrell immediately pledged to get his police commissioner onto it. “Honestly, these clowns who hide behind their keyboards in their mothers’ basements thinking that they can send offensive messages … we’ve got to empower police with the ability to replace their keyboards with handcuffs” the commissioner said later that day.
However as Sam de Brito rightly pointed out, making threats of violence via any medium is already a crime and you can’t feasibly legislate against cruelty or being a dickhead. And can the police do everything? “There are thousands of women – and children – out there being physically bashed and abused in real life” declared Sky News host Janine Perret on PM Live. “I want our police to use their limited resources to catch those bad guys instead of wasting precious time hunting down anonymous idiots who say nasty things from behind a computer screen.”
I agree with all those arguments, which is why I’ve come to believe that legislation can’t stop trolls. Only we can. Because without the oxygen supplied by their targets, a troll melts, just like the witch in the Wizard Of Oz. Overwhelmingly on social media, people are good and for me the positivity of Twitter far outweighs any trollish negatives. Perhaps if collectively we pledge not to feed the trolls with our attention and simply block and delete them, they’ll eventually shuffle back to the basement. Or grow up and find a more constructive hobby. As Tracy Grimshaw said last week: “If a troll shrieks in the forest and no one hears them, do they make a noise? No.”
That’s why I’m all about ‘block, report, delete’ these days. I don’t even read the bad stuff anymore. I just walk away, like I did from another type of abuse all those years ago.
POSTSCRIPT: Two weeks ago Mamamia implemented a new comments policy (you can read about it here) in order to change the vibe around here and nuke some of the negativity and mean-spirited comments that were the consequence of recent traffic growth. A few days later, we decided to pre-moderate comments, something we should have done long ago. The transformation was almost instant. We are now moderating in close to real time but nasty, aggressive or irrelevant comments are now not seeing the light – or getting any oxygen from us. It’s made Mamamia a far nicer place to visit and work and traffic has only increased. Lesson learnt.
Have you ever been in an emotionally abusive relationship? How did you get out? Have you ever been trolled online?